Section 2: Reduction of Virus Transmission

Anyone displaying any of the key COVID-19 symptoms must not attend school, with schools ensuring that this is implemented stringently. They should stay at home and book a test through the PHA website.

Social Distancing

Social distancing remains a key aspect of measures to be taken in school to mitigate the risks of virus transmission. While the Executive agreed that the stringent application of social-distancing requirements between pupils would be relaxed from August 2020, schools should continue to endeavour to implement as much social distancing as is practical where physical capacity and curriculum delivery permit. Public health guidance with respect to social distancing of 2 metres remains in place between adults and as far as possible between adults and pupils. Social distancing guidance applies across all areas of the school estate, both indoors and outdoors.

Social distancing applies to staff, pupils, parents (and any others who may attend the school) and any external contractors or delivery drivers.  It is essential that all these groups are taken into consideration.  Special considerations apply to those who are clinically vulnerable. Contractors (including non-works contractors such as school invigilators and examiners/moderators) and delivery drivers should carry out their work in line with their organisation’s policy for adhering to the relevant COVID-19 guidance. 

The work of schools to encourage social distancing wherever possible will continue to look different across the various ages and stages of learning.  For instance, how social distancing is implemented for very young children, for children with complex needs or disabilities and for pupils in different Key Stages may vary.

For children and young people in Special Schools with the most complex additional support needs, schools should involve lead professionals and parents to decide how best to continue supporting them.

Education settings should continue to operate local approaches that minimise interaction between pupils at social and dining times. 

During the 2020-21 academic year, social distancing measures fell into two broad categories: decreasing interaction (through the use of formal protective bubbles) and increasing separation. 

The Executive decided that from 16 August, schools are no longer required to operate a system of formal protective bubbles.

This aligns with the Executive’s Pathway to Out of Restrictions which seeks to remove restrictions as soon as it is considered safe to do so.  

Although the use of formal bubbles is no longer required in schools, the need for schools to continue to support effective contact tracing means that schools are asked to maintain a cautious and measured approach that still seeks to maximise the time where pupils are within a consistent group of pupils. Schools are also asked to consider implementing any localised approaches that would support effective contact tracing. Pupils are no longer restricted in terms of their ability to access different classrooms however they are encouraged to move around outdoors where possible and use a face covering when moving indoors. 

It will be for each school to determine if they wish to continue to use some/all of the principles of bubbles that they will have used during the 2020-21 year, particularly if they believe that they have proved effective in mitigating virus transmission and that pupils’ ability to learn is not unduly impacted. The lower levels of risk associated with activities taking place outdoors means that if a school wishes to retain the use or partial use of bubbles indoors, it may not be necessary to do so outdoors.

It is anticipated that the removal of the requirement to use formal bubbles will allow for greater flexibility in the delivery of the curriculum, allow pupils to access all classrooms and facilities and also means that schools should no longer need to provide for a classroom based lunch service.

The use of formal bubbles focused on reducing the likely number of close contacts that a child or staff member has within their educational setting and to simplify the process of close contact identification. Without the use of formal bubbles, schools should still seek to reduce contacts, support the PHA’s contact tracing by encouraging pupils to remain within a consistent group of pupils wherever possible, only undertaking larger gatherings of pupils where it is essential and considering whether any local measures could support this aim such as use of fixed seating plans in classrooms.

Social Distancing When Delivering 1:1 Care

Provision of one to one care and support is integral to the delivery of quality education and support to some of our most vulnerable pupils. Whilst adult to adult social distancing should be maintained at all times, where staff consistently remain with a pupil or a class they should likewise be viewed as part of the protective bubble and social distancing between those adults and children may be relaxed.

Further information is available in the special schools section of this guidance.

When providing one-to-one care for SEN or vulnerable pupils, adult to adult social distancing should be maintained wherever possible. It is important in cases where staff are working closely with children e.g. in carrying out Aerosol Generating Procedures that the necessary PPE is used.

For one-to-one care or support between staff and pupils where social distancing measures cannot be maintained, e.g. classroom assistants, then face covering +/- PPE e.g. an appropriate face covering and visor, should be used as determined by a risk assessment.

Social Distancing in Boarding Schools

Boarding schools and residential facilities will have their own particular challenges.

Social Distancing For Wraparound Care and Extra-Curricular Activities

Wraparound support and Extended Schools provision should operate using social distancing guidance as far as is possible and comply with any additional guidance provided by the Department of Health (DoH).

It is accepted that pupils who are accessing wraparound care in school will inevitably be mixing with those from outside their usual classes. Schools are asked to put in place measures to support effective contact tracing for such activities. It is also advised that wraparound care services are delivered outdoors wherever possible.

Space Utilisation

Education settings should seek to maximise the ability of their existing space to accommodate pupils by rearranging teaching spaces to minimise the risk of transmission and infection by:

  • Spacing seating as widely as possible within a teaching space;
  • Facing children to the front of the classroom as much as possible;
  • Assigning pupils to particular desks; and
  • Giving consideration to maximising space for individual pupils by removing non-essential furniture from teaching spaces.

Indoor and Outdoor Gatherings

Schools are able to host both outdoor and indoor gatherings on the same basis as the Executive’s current guidance for non-domestic outdoor and indoor gatherings in other sectors. The maximum number of people able to attend the event should be based on the risk assessment of the venue/room. The requirements in terms of risk assessments for non-domestic outdoor or indoor gatherings can be found on the NI Direct website. 

It is important that schools give due consideration to the range of issues around the holding of an indoor gathering and take all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission of COVID-19. Schools are strongly encouraged to take a cautious approach to the resumption of indoor gatherings, aiming to hold events outdoors where possible, and only seeking to organise an indoor event where it is considered essential to do so.

Where an indoor event is unavoidable, mitigating measures should be in place such as maintaining social distancing as well as good hand and respiratory hygiene practices. It is also important that indoor spaces are well ventilated at all times, by leaving doors and windows open. Frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, should be cleaned regularly. Pupils should be encouraged to stay with their class group wherever possible during the gathering.

Further information on outdoor gatherings can be found in the letter to principals of 9 June 2021. Further information on indoor gatherings can be found in the guidance note issued to school principals on 18 June 2021.

In determining whether whole school or whole year assemblies should be held indoors, schools should ensure they follow the Executive’s guidance on non-domestic indoor gatherings.  They should carefully assess whether such an assembly is necessary and only hold such gatherings if they are able to effectively put in place a range of mitigating measures to minimise the risk of virus transmission.

Schools should consider whether they wish to resume face to face meetings/events with parents and/or visits or whether they wish to continue to use alternative methods to conduct these meetings such as video/phone. Any face to face meetings/events should follow the Executive’s guidance on non-domestic indoor gatherings.

In school meetings between school staff should take place by tele-conference or video-conference where possible, however face to face meetings in school without a maximum number of adults will be permitted providing other suitable COVID-19 mitigations are in place. These include ensuring that a suitably sized and well ventilated room is used in order to facilitate social distancing of 2m between adults, subject to appropriate risk assessments.

Use of Outdoor Spaces

When the weather is conducive, education settings should seek to safely maximise their use of the outdoor environment as public health advice is that outdoor environments can limit transmission, as well as more easily allowing for appropriate social distancing between children and staff. Outdoor learning and play in schools can also offer a breadth of educational and health benefits to pupils of all ages.

Where outdoor equipment is being used, schools should follow hand hygiene guidance as well as considering appropriate cleaning by staff between groups of children using it.  

Pupil/Staff Movement within Schools

The Executive’s decision to no longer require the use of bubbles in schools does not affect the benefits of close interactions with others being minimised wherever possible. While they should be avoided wherever possible, brief interactions within social distancing guidance, such as limited numbers of people passing each other in corridors where one way systems are not possible or, walking through learning spaces to go to the toilet (for example), are considered low risk and are permissible. Use of floor markings in relevant spaces may help minimise the extent of such encroachments.

Schools will note that it is no longer appropriate for post primary pupils to receive teaching and learning in a single base classroom with limited access to specialist accommodation. The Department expects to see the resumption of practical activities across the curriculum for all post primary pupils in 2021/22.  This requires access to specialist equipment and accommodation to continue to develop essential skills across all Areas of Learning. 

Information on the use of face coverings when pupils/staff are moving around the school premises can be found in the face coverings section. 

Some approaches to timetabling, circulation of school populations and transitions between different parts of the school day that Managing Authorities and schools can consider include:

  • One-way Systems – Many schools currently manage their pupil circulation by adopting one-way systems in corridors and on stairs.  This may help avoid bottlenecks and ease travel around the school.
  • External Circulation – Schools should encourage pupils to move around the school estate using outdoor routes wherever possible. 
  • Soft Changeovers – Schools should consider how they can reduce pupil numbers in usually crowded areas at peak times such as a “no bell” strategy, which allows a degree of flexibility on class start/finish times.
  • Signage/Communication – It is important that appropriate signage and  communication to pupils is maintained to ensure their awareness and adherence to protocols when moving in school.
  • Drop Off/Pick Up – Schools should consider how they can avoid parents congregating at school gates at the start and the end of the school day. However, schools should recognise the difficulties that staggered start and finishing times cause for many families with more than one child at a school and seek to avoid their use where possible.
     
  • Some approaches that Managing Authorities and schools may consider include the following:
  1. If the school has additional access points, consideration may be given to whether it would be beneficial to open these to reduce congestion.
  2. Consideration may be given to where children go as they arrive at the setting. This could include going straight to their small groups’ designated learning space/classroom, which could be indoors or outdoors. Where learning spaces can be accessed directly from outside, this should be encouraged to decrease interactions between individuals in circulation spaces.
  3. If parents or carers are dropping off children, they should be discouraged from gathering outside the school and should maintain distancing of 2m, as far as practicable.
  4. For those arriving by car, parents may be encouraged to park further away from the school and then walk with their children (‘park and stride’) to avoid congestion or alternatively use active travel routes where feasible.
  5. Particular consideration should be given to the arrangements for parents of children with complex needs or disabilities, who may normally drop their children off within the school building.
  • Evacuation Procedures – If the layout of the setting is changed, and/or circulation routes or entry/exit points are altered, consideration should be given to evacuation procedures (e.g. in the event of a fire or other incident).  Evacuation points should also be considered to ensure appropriate social distancing arrangements are maintained between individuals/groups as far as practically possible.  This should be included as part of the risk assessment for the setting.  Evacuation arrangements for children with complex needs or disabilities should be reviewed in light of any changes.

COVID-19 usually spreads by droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking. These droplets can also be picked up from surfaces, if you touch a surface and then your face without washing your hands first. The best available scientific evidence is that, when used correctly, wearing a face covering may reduce the spread of COVID-19 droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others while also providing some protection to the wearer. Because face coverings are mainly intended to protect others, not the wearer from COVID-19, they are not a replacement for social distancing and regular hand washing. The wearing of a face covering will not automatically exempt an individual from being identified as a close contact by the PHA’s Contact Tracing Service.

Safe wearing of face coverings requires cleaning of hands before and after touching – including to remove or put them on – and the safe storage of them in individual, sealable plastic bags between use.  Where a face covering becomes damp, it should not be worn and should be replaced carefully. It is vital that clear instructions are provided to staff and children and young people on how to put on, remove, store and dispose of face coverings in all of the circumstances above, to avoid inadvertently increasing the risks of transmission.

This advice covers all education settings including EOTAS, Special Education provision and boarding schools.

While face coverings are recommended in some circumstances, if any pupil is unable or unwilling to wear a face covering, they should not be denied access to the full range of educational opportunities. The Departments recommendations on the use of face coverings are shown below:

  • Primary school children are recommended not to use face coverings on school premises because of the range of mitigation measures schools have in place and the reduced rate of transmission to and from children of this age.
  • It is strongly recommended that post-primary pupils wear a face covering at all times when inside school buildings, including classrooms, corridors and confined communal spaces such as toilet areas. This position will be reviewed again at the end of November. For subjects where social distancing is possible, such as drama in a large hall, face coverings are no longer required. 
  • It is mandatory for all post-primary school age pupils to wear a face covering on all public and school transport unless they have a reasonable excuse not to. Schools should also be aware that some persons (including children) are exempt from wearing face coverings and this should be treated sensitively.
  • Primary age pupils are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering on all public and schools transport where they are able to do so.
  • In classrooms, staff are encouraged to wear a face covering where they are not able to maintain a 2m social distance from other staff or pupils and any staff who wish to wear a face covering at other times are free to do so.
  • Outside of the classroom setting, where a 2m distance cannot be maintained from other persons either indoors or outdoors on a school site, all adults should be encouraged to wear a face covering. This includes communal staff areas and for all adults visiting the school site.

Face coverings in schools for Deaf children and young people

The EA’s Sensory Service has provided information and advice on the impact of wearing face coverings in schools for deaf children and young people. This can be found in the special schools section of this document.

Hygiene Measures

Personal Hygiene

Personal hand and respiratory hygiene measures remain a fundamental aspect of preventing transmission of the virus and schools should facilitate the following good practices wherever possible including the provision of hand sanitiser at key areas (e.g. entry and exit points).

Hand Hygiene

  • Schools should encourage all staff, pupils, volunteers, contractors, service users and visitors to maintain high standards of hand hygiene throughout the day and that there are adequate handwashing facilities accessible to all children.
  • Pupils should wash their hands upon arrival at school each day and regularly throughout the day. Young pupils may require supervising / assistance with hand washing.
  • Pupils and staff should avoid touching their faces including mouth, eyes and nose.
  • Schools are encouraged to provide disposable paper towels for hand drying rather than shared towels.
  • Sanitiser is not a recommended substitute for hand washing however it can be a helpful additional layer of protection.

Respiratory Hygiene

  • Staff and children should cover the nose and mouth with a disposable tissue when sneezing, coughing, wiping and blowing the nose.
  • All used tissues should be disposed of promptly into a waste bin, and schools should ensure that bins are emptied regularly.
  • If you don’t have any tissues available, cough and sneeze into the crook of the elbow and wash hands at the first opportunity.
  • Bins with bags should be provided in classrooms and in other key locations around the site for the disposal of tissues and any other waste.  Consideration should be given to their disposal including double bagging and emptying.
  • A supply of disposable tissues should be available to implement the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach in each classroom.

Regular reminders and signage should be applied to build and maintain awareness of personal hygiene standards throughout the day.

Public health advice is that although COVID-19 spreads from person to person through small droplets, aerosols and through direct contact, there is a relatively low risk of virus transmission associated with surface contacts in schools. The risk from sharing resources such as library books or bringing schoolbags into school is extremely small. Schools are not required to advise children not to bring in items such as schoolbags or pencil cases. The small risk presented by sharing resources such as pens and computers in school can be further reduced by regular hand hygiene and regular surface cleaning practices. Schools are not required to quarantine items either after shared use in the classroom or after they have been in a pupil’s home. In circumstances where an individual who has tested positive has used resources while symptomatic, taking those resources out of use for a few days further reduces the already small risk of infection from surfaces.

Ventilation

Public health advice is that the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through very small aerosols and droplets released in exhaled breath. These aerosols can be carried in the air and could cause infection if they are inhaled. The risk of virus transmission through aerosols and airborne particles is lower in a well ventilated space where fresh air as able to flow and so schools are encouraged to mitigate this risk by maximising the ventilation of all indoor spaces as much as is practicable.

The use of ventilation, whether natural or by mechanical means, should be maximised as far as practicable. School activities are encouraged to take place outdoors wherever possible. Where activities take place indoors, schools should seek to have doors and windows open wherever possible.

The opening of doors and windows should be encouraged to increase natural ventilation and also to reduce contact with door handles.  However, propping open of doors into corridors, external doors, security access systems and any other fire safety doors is prohibited. It should be sufficient for windows to be open dependent on climates and for existing mechanical ventilation where desired to achieve thermal comfort, but users will need to achieve a balance between maximising ventilation and achieving a tolerable working temperature.

To ensure the health, safety and welfare of staff and pupils the ambient temperature in a workplace should not be below 16oC. In cooler weather windows should be opened just enough to provide constant background ventilation, and opened more fully during breaks to purge the air in the space.

To balance the need for increased ventilation while maintaining a comfortable temperature, the following measures should also be considered where appropriate:

  • opening high level windows in preference to low level to reduce draughts
  • increasing the ventilation while spaces are unoccupied (e.g. between classes, during break and lunch, when a room is unused)
  • providing flexibility to allow wearing additional, suitable indoor clothing
  • rearranging furniture where possible to avoid direct drafts

Heating should be used as necessary to ensure comfort levels are maintained, particularly in occupied spaces.

A well ventilated space should be available for pupils (with appropriate supervision) and staff who become symptomatic to wait in until they can be collected or safely get home.

Mechanical ventilation is a system that uses a fan to draw fresh air or extract air from a room. These should be adjusted to increase the ventilation rate wherever possible and checked to confirm that normal operation meets current guidance and that only fresh outside air is circulated.

If possible, systems should be adjusted to full fresh air or, if this is not possible, then systems should be operated as normal as long as they are within a single room and supplemented by an outdoor air supply.

Where mechanical ventilation systems exist, you should ensure that they are maintained in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Schools should identify any poorly ventilated spaces as part of their risk assessment and take steps to improvement fresh air flow in these areas, giving particular consideration when holding events where visitors such as parents may be on site.

Guidance and discussion on good ventilation produced by SAGE, the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland and CIBSE is available below:

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